His State of the Union speech reveals a hugely ambitious man with a bold, if sometimes messy, political style

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That helps explain why Clinton had such a difficult start. But the problem was complicated by the fact that Clinton wanted it this way: he liked having 20 people report to him, feeding him volumes of information that he would sit and consider in solitude. He wanted to be his own chief of staff, his own legislative director and his own National Security Adviser. He wanted to be as involved in choosing the dozen presidential scholars coming for lunch as in wrestling with the wording of minor speeches. He was reluctant to let even minor White House proclamations go out without review. He recently barked at an aide who tried to release a statement on ethanol, saying he had to run it by two Midwestern Senators -- personally. "It's almost a throwback to the old ( days when Presidents did everything themselves," said an official. Added another: "He tries to keep all these balls in the air. He could get away with it in Little Rock. He was smart enough to pull it off in that town. But here? He's not that smart."

Aides say Clinton is aware of the problem but has trouble taking the steps to correct it. Where once he participated in grueling, two- and three-hour briefings on everything from the budget to the rehiring of fired air-traffic controllers, he has begun to realize that he was having, as he put it, "arguments I didn't need to win." He once insisted on sitting through a briefing on maritime reform only to say afterward, "I shouldn't have spent an hour on that." Observed an official: "He does want to be endlessly involved in the minutiae. He sits down, he smiles, he gets engaged and educates himself. And then he walks out of the room and pitches a fit: 'Why did I have to sit through that?' " Said one who minded him for several months: "He'll complain about the schedule, but he's the one who puts the stuff on the schedule in the first place." Advisers must also contend with the most creative and chaotic part of Clinton's personality: his desire to constantly roam the mental landscape of the presidency. His 9:15 a.m. meeting with top aides, ostensibly to discuss his schedule, often devolves into a general discussion about whatever is in the news. Clinton holds forth in these sessions, skipping among four or five subjects with as many as 10 officials. Clinton likes to ask whomever he is with for an opinion about whatever is on his mind, whether that person knows much about it or not. In private Clinton will admit to his weakness, likening it to the habit of a schoolboy who enters a public library to browse the history stacks but then loses himself in mysteries. "He can have a 10-minute meeting in two hours," says an aide.

The bull sessions continue until someone, usually deputy assistant Nancy Hernreich, clears the room. "I don't have time to meet with the President," says a senior official, who simply walks back to his office when he sees a crowd in the Oval Office. "You could spend a day in there, and some do." Chief of staff Mack McLarty admits that he once had to ask the President to stand up, move away from a group crowded around his desk and into another chair so he could have a "nice, crisp, 10-minute meeting" on schedule.

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